Father named me Kannagi but not once did he use that name. Instead, he drew from a chest full of pet names: gold, diamond, ruby, and so forth. I loved the names more than the actual jewellery. To Mother’s great consternation, I refused to wear jewellery and resisted until I came of age. Mother also complained that I had a runaway mouth. Perhaps she was right. Perhaps I should have started from the beginning

I was born in Kaveri-Poom-Pattinam, also known as Poom-Puhar, but referred to by her inhabitants as Puhar, ancient capital of the glorious and upright Cholan Kingdom.

When the fortune-tellers declared his new-born daughter, Kannagi, would gain fame, Father delighted. Nevertheless, as the celebrations peaked and well-wishers praised his great fortune, the implications of the news seeped in and his spirit waned.

It was bad enough if the son he did not have were to outshine him—but a daughter?

After all, parents nurtured female children only to marry them off to bring good fortune to another house. Moreover, a good daughter-in-law obeyed and respected her husband and her in-laws. Expectations fulfilled did not receive praise but unworthy conduct found its way to the doorsteps of her parents.

It was a loser’s covenant, and not of the kind any shrewd merchant welcomed. And Father was as shrewd as any in Puhar or, for that matter, in all the three kingdoms of Tamilakam: Cholan, Pandyan, and Cheran.

‘Will she excel in music or dance?’ he asked the astrologers and fortune tellers.

Father wondered whether the fine arts might serve as a carriage for my foretold fame. Such education for girls was a preserve of the upper classes of society. As patriarch of one of the foremost families of the mercantile class in Poom-Puhar, Father was also renowned in the royal court of the Great Cholan, Maha-Rajah Kari-Kaalan himself.

The astrologers blamed the stars and the fortune-tellers could not provide specifics.

‘Perhaps,’ said the chief astrologer. ‘Her fame takes root in the west-country and spreads beyond the shores of Bharatham.’

Father turned dark in thought, compelling the men of strange rites and magical words to gather their beads and things mystical, and to slink away in silence.

Aunty Chinnamma, my mother’s younger sister, told me of Father’s reaction to the fortune-tellers’ predictions. She related stories of Father’s unhappiness that his first-born was a girl, would find fame, and so on.  My aunty saw herself as the keeper of family secrets.

‘But what good is a secret not revealed?’ she said. And when I spent time with Chinnamma, she was generous with snippets of our family history.

She was close to Mother, and they shared many intimate details of their lives. I found their relationship remarkable but even at my young age, I knew I could never share such privacy with anyone.

Copyright @ Eric Alagan, 2018

Song of the Ankle Rings, an adaptation of Silappatikaram

Continued on Monday: Betrothed at Birth


  1. How news get thwarted when they reach the ears of the recipient. I was very young then but I recalled how my aunt (my father’s sister) reported to my grandma and father that mum was flirting with the Indian seller at the market. He owned a shop house and stayed there alone. I knew that Indian seller. He came from India and was very friendly. He loves to tell stories of his children and how he looks forward to them staying at his place whenever they come. Well that day, mum and dad had some cross words. Aunt did not even pretend to help. I lost all respect for her since.

    Those were the times where any misconduct from the daughter-in-law, news travelled extremely fast.

    1. Hello Windy,

      Oh dear, that was horrid what your aunt did. Such behaviour is very prevalent even now.

      People in my apartment block greet neighbours at the lift landing. Some times we linger for short chats. My neighbour was livid when her husband spoke to another woman-a friendly lady who chats with everyone. The neighbour kicked up a fuss and the poor fellow darts out of the lift and refuses to make eye-contact with anyone. In fact my neighbour spread word that the lady was trying to get fresh with her husband. And these are all elderly people with grandchildren. LOL!

      Yes, in Asian societies bad news regarding a daughter-in-law travelled almost as fast as news regarding indiscretions with a member of the opposite sex.

      Have a great weekend,

  2. Another interesting thought. We know Bharat means ancient India and you refer to Bharatham. The Indonesian word expressed in English as Barat has always interested me as it means the direction west and Bharat is west of Indonesia. I wonder if that was an influence on Bahasa Indonesia from the Hindu kingdoms in Indonesia before the introduction of Islam?

    1. Hello again Ian,

      Bharat, Bharatham, and Bharata are all correct depending on the region.

      Yes, I believe Barat—west in Bahasa—came from the Indian languages. We find many such words in Bahasa, and you’re right again, because of Indian commercial, political and religious influences in South East Asia which predated Middle-Eastern and European arrival.


  3. This caught my eye Eric, “Expectations fulfilled did not receive praise but unworthy conduct found its way to the doorsteps of her parents.” How true, and perhaps a further demand for dowry by way of compensation when expectations not met? 🙂

    1. Hello Ian,

      Yes, the blame attaches to parents. Even now—and this is an extreme example—one comes across brats everywhere. Children are not born brats. Parents neglect their children or worse.

      Over the decades people gained a superficial understanding regarding the practice of dowry. Demanding further compensation is shameful but, you’re right, some resort to it.

      Trust the weekend is going well,

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